Review: The Many Saints of Newark

With The Many Saints of Newark, “the movie was not set up as a Tony Soprano origin story. It was a story about Dickie Moltisanti and it still is. It’s a gangster movie. It’s about gangsters in the late sixties, early seventies in New Jersey, both black and white,” David Chase told interviewer Alan Sepinwall with Rolling Stone in August. This provides a clear mission statement for the intended plot and themes of the film. While I think that goal is clear enough in the final product, it still is fundamentally an origin story, in part for Tony, but also in part for the entire Sopranos series.

In that same interview, Chase expressed some clear frustrations about the project: that he was not ultimately able to direct, that the movie was released immediately on HBO Max alongside the theatrical release, and that the movie was marketed as A Sopranos Story and as an origin story for Tony. But he also made clear that he pushed back on actual changes to the movie itself, and he said that he did not add more to Tony’s plot despite studio pressure and the remarkable ability of Michael Gandolfini to embody his late father’s appearance and mannerisms. So I think it’s safe to say that The Many Saints of Newark is more or less the movie that Chase as writer and one of the producers, cowriter Lawrence Konner, and director Alan Taylor set out to make.

All that said, it is not possible to separate this movie from The Sopranos. It’s not just a gangster movie. One of the four people I saw the movie with had not seen The Sopranos, and the surprise reveal at the end of the movie mostly left her bemused, not impressed and certainly not surprised. The characterizations in the film, with its colossal ensemble cast, largely rely on familiarity with the existing characters; while virtually all of the actors are allowed to bring their own takes to these well-known figures, there’s certainly a degree of impression baked into each portrayal of a younger version of a familiar character. That means that someone without knowledge of the show, or who maybe hasn’t watched it since it came out, will miss out on the foundation provided by the original portrayals of these characters, likely finding most of the performances to be too brief to provide more than superficial personalities. I’d also suspect it would be difficult to track the characters; I watched the show over the past year or so, and I still was uncertain about who some of Tony’s same-age friends, barely if ever mentioned by name, were. (Here I’m actually grateful that this was simultaneously released for home streaming, because I’m sure to watch again with subtitles on to pick up on more dialogue and see if some elusive character names are provided.)

The film also adds a tremendous amount to one’s understanding of the characters in The Sopranos. There’s plenty to unpack. Young Tony sees Dickie’s aging father bring home a beautiful Italian immigrant and beams up at her; it’s hard not to draw the connection to his hallucinatory Italian beauty decades later. Dickie and Tony have a relationship that mirrors, in many ways, Tony’s later mentorship of Dickie’s own son. A younger Livia looks somewhat similar to Carmela. The movie is an exploration of Tony’s boyhood psyche.

We see more clearly the forces at work in Tony’s life, pulling him many ways. While Livia’s borderline personality disorder is just as disruptive to her family’s lives as ever, it’s also made crystal-clear that Tony’s idealized vision of his father doesn’t match the thuggish and violent figure of his past. As a nice example of this, in a late-series episode of the show, Janice tells a drink-infused story about how Johnny once shot a gun through Livia’s hair when they were driving home from a dinner; Tony is quickly angered that Janice brings this up at all and denies that it ever happened. But we see this scene in the movie, and it’s truly horrifying, an abrupt switch from Livia’s constant complaining to the loud blast of the gun in the night and the brief moment when everyone in the car is sitting in shocked silence. That scene also provides an example of where the events depicted don’t quite line up with the story as told in the series; in fact, we even see some scenes from the series’ flashbacks that don’t quite happen exactly the same way, or events that don’t seem to match up with the suggested timeline of what happened in the show. It’s an interesting portrayal of the slipperiness of memory, the subjectivity of perspective. Even the movie itself shouldn’t be interpreted as the “canon” events of the Sopranos story, with its sparing use of surreal imagery and the frame narrative that is Christopher Moltisanti (voiced again by Michael Imperioli) telling the tale of his father from the grave.

It’s also not really about “black and white” gangsters in equal consideration, or about the Newark riots. At the core of the movie, this is a story about the relationship between young Tony and his “uncle” Dickie. There is a B plot involving the Newark riots, white flight, and anti-black racism from the police and the Italian-American community. That B plot has a lot of heady material but does not delve deep enough–I wonder if such an effort was even necessary at all in a movie about a particular Italian-American crime family, and I would argue that the result is largely a distraction from the main narrative. Despite providing a rival black mobster, Harold, (played by Leslie Odom Jr.) to follow as he breaks away from working for the Italian-Americans and launches his own numbers racket, we don’t truly see much from a black perspective. We see the riots, even up close, from a mostly outside perspective, often tinged with fear as the characters focus on the chaos and violence rather than the underlying racism and racial tensions that led to the riots, or we see them as the Italian-American mobsters use the riots as a smokescreen for their own illegal activities. Again, this would be fine if the movie were about the Italian-American criminals’ perspectives only, but it’s ostensibly about viewpoints from both sides of a racial and cultural divide.

As it is, the story is about Dickie, and we don’t really get enough time to understand Harold’s motivations or end goal. The Italian-American characters often have moments to talk to another character in moments of vulnerability, signaling their deeper emotions and concerns even if not stating them outright, and I do not recall Harold getting many such moments. It is a struggle to even sympathize with Harold, as he serves more as an antagonist stealing away from Dickie than an active agent in his own right. His turn to starting his own criminal empire is largely motivated by black empowerment performance art, leaving a spoken word session with the determination not to help his community but to get rich off his black neighbors through vice on his own terms. Certainly there was no need to make Harold more heroic, or smarter, than the Italian-American characters, but it was clear that his choice would lead to a lot of bloodshed and suffering for the people close to him, and it was unlikely that there would be any scenario where Harold would win big in a war against a much more powerful enemy. Additionally, in a moment that has very little setup in the film, we find out that he’s having an affair with Dickie’s own mistress, which seems more primed to reflect fears of interracial mixing or a slide away from the establishment of a white middle-class identity for Italian-Americans than anything that actually seems relevant to the characters’ experiences. In general, Italian-American racial attitudes and fears were provided ample screen time, while there was not really anything that felt like an authentic black perspective–although it’s worth noting that Leslie Odom Jr., the great actor that he is, found personal resonance in the role of Harold and attempted to bring a rich portrayal to what David Chase wrote.

It was not hard to remember that this was a movie created by older white men (making the recurrent use of the N-word by black characters a little cringeworthy, given who wrote the dialogue and made the choice to employ it). There are still plenty of stories to be told about protests, riots, injustice, and race relations then and now, but that story certainly wasn’t shared very coherently here. If anything, this subplot felt like a distraction from the core story, which very much was a Sopranos prequel. And there are stories to be told about the many lived experiences of black Americans, which can include tales of organized crime–in fact, the third-act appearance of Oberon Adjepong as real-life gangster Frank Lucas in a mostly cameo role is a reminder that there is already at least one good, complex portrait of a black crime lord in American Gangster.

As a Sopranos prequel, this movie excels. I’ve already talked about this, but it’s worth emphasizing that Many Saints adds new layers to the characters and events of the original series. Of course, if there were a single protagonist in the movie, it’s not anyone named Soprano, but rather Dickie Moltisanti, portrayed by Alessandro Nivola, who effortlessly swings between affably charming and murderously enraged. Dickie has a large influence in The Sopranos, despite being dead for decades by the start of the series. He’s representative of the good old days that are past. Tony’s explanation for Dickie’s death and the quest for vengeance he gives to Christopher are important late-stage moments in their fraying relationship. Finding out who Dickie was and what actually happened to him proves to be a worthy subject for an addition to the Sopranos narrative. He proves to be as tragic, gifted, and flawed a character as Tony ever was, sympathetic even as a criminal yet prone to horrific and inexcusable conduct when enraged. The return of his abusive father with a beautiful young Italian woman as his new stepmother sets off an Oedipal narrative that ends as wretchedly for Dickie as it did for Oedipus. There’s plenty of psychological subtext throughout the film, and Dickie’s conflicted feelings regarding his stepmother and his father–redirected toward guilt-assuaging visits to his father’s twin brother (with both brothers played by Ray Liotta) after the father’s death–are an essential part of his story.

I saw some critics complain that the movie does not offer a convincing turn to organized crime for Tony. But the movie ends with him only beginning to make that commitment, not through literal action but through an unspoken vow. A lot is left unsaid. A lot still must happen on Tony’s journey. But this is not a flaw of the film. There is enough to wink at Sopranos fans, but this movie is not, and never was, an origin story for Tony’s entrance into organized crime. Yeah, I’d watch a sequel with the cast assembled here reprising their roles as younger versions of iconic characters to actually depict that journey, but I also don’t need that movie. Yes, this is an origin story, but more than the specific path Tony took to becoming a mobster, this movie gives us even more insight into the roots of his later-life neuroses and provides a riveting tale of the tragic end of Dickie Moltisanti and the turbulent time that would be remembered by Tony and crew through rose-tinted glasses years later as the good old days.

GTA: A Mirrored View

I’ve been watching several nineties crime dramas on Netflix and Amazon Prime recently, movies like CasinoGoodfellasHeat, and Boyz n the Hood, viewing some for the first time.

It’s interesting to realize how much these films have shaped the Grand Theft Auto games–and, sadly, how much those games have borrowed heavily for style and visuals but often dumped theme and intent in the process.

The film allusions are often rather obvious. The Mafiosos in III and IV take obvious inspiration from the faded, past-their-prime, and sometimes desperate characters in Goodfellas or The Sopranos (perhaps most noticeable, besides in-universe promotions for a “Badfellas” movie, is the echoing of the toxic relationship between Tony and Livia Soprano in III‘s Toni Cipriani and his mother). Vice City is far from subtle in its heavy homages to the visuals, characters, themes, and sets of Scarface and Miami Vice. And all the games are heavy with nods and winks to films both in and out of the crime genre.

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A copy of Tony Montana’s mansion appears in Vice City.

In this line, Boyz n the Hood is often cited as an inspiration for San Andreas, while Heat is credited with influencing the heists in IV and V. I had just accepted this as common knowledge, but I was shocked to see just how much these games had pulled from the two films, at a level that is probably at least equal to the debt owed to Scarface.

I was actually left disappointed with San Andreas with my newfound hindsight. Characters and scenarios are borrowed from Boyz n the Hood, in addition to the general setting of an LA-look-alike in the city of Los Santos. But Boyz n the Hood is rich in thoughtful sociopolitical messaging, in avoiding simple dichotomies and obvious solutions. And rather than a presentation of thrilling casual violence, the gunplay in the movie is often brief and brutal, with horrible repercussions. There is in fact very little actual violence presented, though there is the steady percussion of gunshots and helicopters in flight and emergency sirens in the background. Boyz n the Hood refused to glamorize or villainize. It portrayed a toxic environment, poisoned by a racist and indifferent nation, killing its young people in a cycle of events that feels almost outside of the ability of any young person to resist and that preys on impulses of passion and loyalty that I think we all can understand; we as viewers can only hope that Tre Styles will take the lessons to heart learned from his father Furious to avoid the cycle of vendetta-fueled violence. (I don’t know where else to say this, but it was weird to me how much the third acts of A Bronx Tale and Boyz n the Hood are paralleled.)

In contrast, San Andreas largely glorifies gang life. The gang life leads protagonist CJ to wealth, opportunity, and a restoration of his surviving family. Yes, the gang life also sees family and friends killed, but most of the core cast of allies survive to see the end. In fact, the primary villains are those who betray their gang members, in addition to the corrupt cops those traitors work with/for. The enemy is obvious and external, not a creeping existential threat empowered by often-abstract institutionalized racism. One of CJ’s major dramatic hurdles is recognizing that in his efforts to go “legit,” building a sprawling and sometimes-legal business empire, he has abandoned his hood by failing to keep in the gang fight.

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Gangsters with hip-hop style in a low-rider carrying out a hit on foot after a drive-by. This could describe a good portion of San Andreas as well.

I’d like to think that I’m not being naive. In a game where the main verbs are “shoot” and “drive,” I understand that having a concrete antagonist that can be defeated is necessary. It’s power fantasy, lightly toying with myths of impoverished urban life on the streets. It’s about machismo, the same (toxic-) masculine values that fuel a more-than-small portion of the crime genre as a whole. And I also recognize that San Andreas draws on a plethora of crime films and “hood genre” films. I can only comment on those films that I have seen, and I recognize that something might be lost in translation; I might be reading references to Boyz n the Hood where the reference was unintentional or in fact drawn from another film in the genre.

Still, it’s disappointing to find San Andreas borrow so much from a rich and thoughtful story and then distill its visuals into a string of shoot-’em-up scenarios. Furthermore, IV and Red Dead Redemption showed that Rockstar could do more than simply ape classic action dramas; the studio could tell stories about the moral emptiness and ultimate personal loss that accompanies a life of crime, and about the sorts of forces that can lead a person to believe that that life of crime is the only option. Stories about personal choice and accountability, honor and loyalty, the desolation of debt, the cyclical nature of violence, and the overreaching authority of a callous and corrupt government filled these games.

Then for V, we see a simple reversal back to “whee, crime is fun” power fantasy. This is fitting, especially given how deeply indebted the game is to Heat.

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This GTA V mission plays out almost exactly like the first heist in Heat–though the guys in Heat get away clean, while this mission leads into a sprawling shoot-out.

Heat lives and dies on its heists. As for theme…it does not offer simple morals. We are all trapped in cycles we can’t escape, at a personal and institutional level (yes, Rockstar certainly continues to acknowledge that theme in Michael and Trevor’s story). There may be a message about time, or how you spend your life, or attachment, or even family, but it’s difficult to make the argument convincingly, and it largely feels nihilist.

For a film that spends so much time attempting to establish its characters (the entire movie is nearly three hours long!), I had difficulty caring about any of them. The criminals were bad guys–professionals, yes, but willing to drop anything if needed and willing to kill anyone who got in their way. One of them is even worse, a sexually violent killer and a hot-head who the rest of the team attempts to eliminate for being too reckless and violent. And Pacino’s cop character carries the baggage of the obsessed-cop trope, with serial failed marriages and an explosive temper (boy, Pacino over-acted in this one).  Besides De Niro’s crew leader and Pacino’s detective, most of the characters are simply defined, and characters of color especially fall into racist (or racist-adjacent) tropes. But I get that this is a movie that is fondly remembered for the intensely choreographed heists and anxiety-inducing, creeping dread of the cat-and-mouse game between cops and robbers. And I sure as hell enjoyed those elements.

GTA V similarly spent a lot of time attempting to set up its characters, who mostly rested on tropes or were lifted largely from Heat. Michael De Santa looks and acts rather like Neil McCauley (De Niro’s character), serving as a leader of the heist. Fry chef Breedan and young, reckless Chris are combined into Franklin (and Breedan’s quick and ignoble death driving the getaway car echoes the opening bank escape scene in the game). And the sociopathic serial killer Waingro’s appearance and voice and mannerisms and temper, and his willingness to go on killing sprees seemingly for fun, are all channeled into Trevor. There’s even a parallel disabled informant/hacker character who helps line up scores for the crews. One could even say that Chris’s marital problems are lifted onto De Santa’s character to give him added purpose.

The biggest influence of Heat seems to be in the heists used in Grand Theft AutoIV had Heat‘s crazy bank escape, gunmen attempting to flee from law enforcement on foot through the streets, firing assault rifles with big duffel bags of cash slung over their shoulders (“Three Leaf Clover“). But V went further with the replications of heists, placing the opening truck heist into the middle-game (“Blitz Play“), including a marginally similar climactic bank heist (“The Big Score,” though this probably draws more from movies like Die Hard with a Vengeance), and antagonizing the protagonist crew with almost-as-bad government agents much like in the film (this understates the point a little bit–government actors are always worse than the individual criminal in the Grand Theft Auto universe).

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Start of a bank heist in Grand Theft Auto IV.

It’s fascinating to me that after all this time, and all the effort to tell original stories, Rockstar still seems to be regurgitating the plots and visuals of classic films, spliced with its irreverent but increasingly predictable and shallow sardonic humor. Its most effective trick–in both IV and V–has been giving the player enough agency to make one major decision at the end. Will the player attempt to break the cycle repeated through the game, or be consumed by it? And does the player’s choice truly matter when larger forces are at play? Oddly, these third-act choices, which often feel rather railroaded after largely linear stories, are maybe the franchise’s most innovative contributions to the crime drama genre.


 

The GTA fan Wikia helpfully lays out many of the film allusions and influences in the games. By this list, prominent crime films that I would still need to see to more fully contextualize the games include:

  • Menace II SocietyColorsNew Jack CityEasy RiderTo Live and Die In L.A., and Training Day (for San Andreas); and
  • Carlito’s Way (for Vice City).

Maybe when/if I see these other films, I’ll revisit the subject. The above discussion is not an exhaustive list of film references (or even crime genre film references), and there are movies–like, for instance, much of Tarantino’s early oeuvre–that are of course referenced at least in small ways, which I have seen and which I did not discuss above.

But are there any movies that you can think of that seem like obvious influences on the Grand Theft Auto games? Or perhaps other books or games? (For instance, I can’t help but draw some connections to Mario Puzo’s books, especially Fools Die). Feel free to let me know in the comments!